(Los Angeles Times ) - China in the past year has developed ways to infiltrate and manipulate computer networks in what U.S. defense officials conclude is a new and potentially dangerous military capability, according to a Pentagon report issued Monday.
Computer network intrusions at the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies, think tanks and government contractors last year "appeared to originate" in China, according to the report.
In addition, computer intrusions in Germany, apparently by Chinese hackers, occur daily, along with infiltrations in France and Britain, the Pentagon said. Last year, British intelligence officials alerted financial institutions that they were target of "state-sponsored computer network exploitation" from China.
The Pentagon report did not accuse the Chinese military or government of the attacks directly but said they were consistent with recent military thinking in that country. David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for East Asia, said cyber-warfare was an area of growing concern and called on the Chinese to clarify their intentions.
"The techniques that are used, the way these intrusions are conducted, are certainly very consistent with what you would need if you were going to actually carry out cyber-warfare, and the kinds of activities that are carried out are consistent with a lot of writings we see from Chinese military and Chinese military theorists," Sedney said.
U.S. military officials believe that China's cyber-warfare advances, coupled with its increasing skill at neutralizing information-transmitting satellites and other capabilities, are part of a military objective of crippling potential foes, even those that might be militarily superior such as the United States, in the event of an international crisis or confrontation.
The report, an annual assessment of China, also said Beijing has continued to develop a sophisticated missile program and appears focused on warding off any U.S. intrusion in the area around Taiwan.
Pentagon officials concede, however, that they lack a clear understanding of China, despite its status as America's second-largest trading partner. During nearly every U.S. official visit to China, military officials press Beijing to disclose details of its spending plans and explain why it is building up its military capabilities.
"The lack of transparency in China's military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation," the report said. "This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown."
The infiltration of Pentagon computer networks has allowed hackers to tap into unclassified computer systems, Sedney said. But even though the hackers did not penetrate classified systems, the infiltration was considered serious, Sedney said.
"There's a whole range of scientific and technological material that is available through people in the contracting world and elsewhere that just isn't classified that can be the subject of these intrusions," he said.
Sedney said the computer break-ins did not amount to attacks, but he said the techniques used to penetrate Defense Department computers also could be used to attack them.
He compared the intrusions to someone breaking into a house but leaving the valuables in place and instead taking pictures of the interior.
The U.S. continues to believe that China's continuing military modernization is driven primarily by preparations for a potential future dispute involving Taiwan. But as the scope of the modernization increases and China's strategic thinking evolves, U.S. officials believe that China is preparing its military for other contingencies, such as conflicts over oil reserves or disputed territories.
The report takes particular note of China's expanding missile inventory, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles designed to strike naval vessels and growing numbers of shorter range missiles.
The primary target of China's missiles, Sedney said, was Taiwan.
David Helvey, one of Sedney's deputies, said China also has purchased highly accurate cruise missiles from Russia that have been installed on Chinese submarines and could be used against U.S. Navy vessels. But Helvey said being able to strike ships will depend on how good the Chinese intelligence and surveillance abilities are.